The University Record, March 7, 1994

Reading of Oleanna kicks off next Rackham ‘Conversation’

By Mary Jo Frank

A University reading of David Mamet’s provocative play Oleanna will be the starting point of the next Rackham Conversation on Academic Priorities program titled “Learning from Oleanna.

Leigh A. Woods, associate professor of theater, and Ceci Grinwald, a junior in the Department of Theatre, will perform a rehearsed reading of Oleanna at 4 p.m. March 16 in the Power Center for the Performing Arts.

Refreshments will be served in Assembly Hall, Rackham Building, following the performance.

A panel discussion, using Oleanna as a case study to explore the ways in which power is distributed and abused in a university setting, begins at 6 p.m. in Rackham Amphitheater.

Law School Dean Lee Bollinger will moderate the discussion. Panelists include Phoebe C. Ellsworth, professor of law and of psychology; June M. Howard, associate professor of English and of women’s studies and director of the American Culture Program; Benedict Nightingale, theater critic for The London Times; Rebecca Kidder, senior majoring in sociology; and Charles Taylor, graduate student in English.

John H. D’Arms, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and vice provost for academic affairs, says this conversation “promises to be an unusually stimulating occasion. Our permission to perform a reading of the play was granted with the understanding that only members of the University community would be invited to attend.”

D’Arms says “Learning from Oleanna” is an effort to connect the messages and themes of the play to the University environment.

“It is not intended to be merely a critique of the play, nor an abstract explor-ation of hate speech vs. free speech, but rather to see the play as a point for serious exploration of matters central to our lives as faculty and students,” D’Arms explains.

Noting the difficulty for college campuses in general, and the U-M in particular, to open a candid, frank exploration of such sensitive issues as sexual harassment, hate speech and free speech, D’Arms says Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr. had asked Rackham to sponsor an event to encourage exploration of these issues.

“The issues of free speech on campus and proper treatment of individuals are tremendously important,” Bollinger says. “We wanted to find a context for trying to discuss these issues. The play seemed like a perfect case study for doing that.”

The controversial Oleanna was chosen because it explores sexual harassment, freedom of expression, and above all, “distribution of authority and power between faculty and student, abuses of that power and unintentional misuses of that power,” D’Arms says.

“We thought we’d try to get the rights to a reading of the play and tie the play very closely to a conversation,” he adds.

Oleanna, which recently played in New York, London, Chicago and Seattle, has received critical acclaim and has provoked heated reactions.

A reviewer wrote in The New Yorker: “No modern playwright has been bolder or more brilliant in analyzing [envy’s] corrosive social effects. ... Such is the power of Mamet’s storytelling that the audience received each willful misinterpretation like a body blow. ... A powerful, exciting play that shows off his enormous skills as a writer.”

“The temptation to take sides in the sex, class, and culture wars that Mamet has mapped out is almost irresistible,” according to a Village Voice review. “He is operating here at his cunning best, for purposes that give the evening a kind of dignity; Oleanna is a tragedy built as a series of audience traps; the minute you get sucked into thinking it says one thing, you’re likely to find it saying the opposite ... A tragedy of language that Wittgenstein might have relished.”

Mamet is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow.